Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike: the world’s first woman Prime Minister | Sunday Observer

Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike: the world’s first woman Prime Minister

3 July, 2022
Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike

Madam Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, commonly known as ‘Madam B’ or ‘Sirimavo’ became the world’s first Lady Prime Minister, when she was appointed the sixth Prime Minister of Ceylon in 1960. She served three terms: 1960 to 1965, 1970 to 1977 and 1994 to 2000. As a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement, she brought the country to prominence among the nations in the world.

At a time in history when the idea of a woman leading a country was almost unthinkable, Sirimavo helped raise the global perception of women’s capabilities. She led the country away from its colonial past and into its political independence as Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972. Implementing socialist policies, she attempted to nationalise key sectors of the economy and undertake land reforms to benefit the native population.

Birth and youth

She was born Sirima Ratwatte on April 17, 1916 in Ratnapura. Her mother was Rosalind Hilda Mahawalatenne Kumarihamy and her father was Barnes Ratwatte, a politician. Sirimavo was the eldest in a family of six children. She had four brothers and one sister. The family resided at her maternal grandfather’s Mahawalatenne Walawwa, and later at their own Balangoda Walawwa.

From a young age, Sirimavo had access to her grandfather’s vast library of literary and scientific works. She first attended a private kindergarten in Balangoda, and later moved briefly in 1923 to Ferguson High School in Ratnapura. Then, Sirimavo walked the hallowed academic walls of St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo. She was fluent in both English and Sinhala.

After completing her schooling, Sirimavo became involved in social work, distributing food and medicine to remote villages, organising clinics and helping create rural industry to improve the living standards of village women. She served as the Treasurer of the Social Service League, until 1940. She lived with her parents while they arranged her marriage.

Marriage and family

A matchmaker proposed Sirimavo, a union with Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike (SWRD), an Oxford-educated lawyer-turned-politician. Astrologers reported their horoscopes were compatible, and approval was given by the Ratwatte family. The couple, who had previously met, were in agreement with the choice.

On October 2, 1940, Sirimavo and SWRD married at the Mahawelatenne Walawwa. The couple moved into Wendtworth in Colombo and they were blessed with daughters, Sunethra (1943) and Chandrika (1945). In 1946, the family settled down in a mansion, Tintagel in Colombo, where their son, Anura was born in 1949.

From this point onward, the family lived part of the year at Tintagel and part of the year at SWRD’s ancestral manor, Horagolla Walawwa. Over the next 20 years, Sirimavo devoted most of her time to raising her family and playing hostess to her husband’s many political acquaintances.

Their three children were educated at St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo and Royal College, Colombo. Later, Sunetra studied at the Oxford University, Chandrika at the University of Paris, and Anura at the University of London.

Sirimavo got her children to serve the country. Apart from the roles of Chandrika and Anura in the Government as President and Speaker, Sunetra worked as her political secretary in the 1970s and later became a philanthropist.

Social services and politics

In 1941, Sirimavo joined the Lanka Mahila Samiti. One of her first projects was an agricultural program to meet food production shortages. Her first office, as the Secretary, involved meeting with farming experts to develop new methods for producing yields of rice crops.

Over time, Sirimavo served as the Treasurer, Vice President, and eventually President of Lanka Mahila Samiti, focusing on education, political rights, and family planning. She was also a member of the All-Ceylon Buddhist Women’s Association, the Cancer Society, the Ceylon National Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis, and the Nurses Welfare Association.

Sirimavo often accompanied SWRD on official trips, both locally and abroad. She and her husband were both present after the Psychiatric Hospital was bombed by the Japanese on Easter Sunday in 1942. As Ceylon moved toward self-governing status in 1947, SWRD became more active in the nationalist movement.

In 1951, she influenced SWRD to establish the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). During the 1952 Parliamentary Elections, Sirimavo campaigned in SWRD’s Attanagalla constituency, while he travelled around the country to gain support. The SLFP won only nine seats and SWRD became the Leader of the Opposition.

When fresh elections were called in 1956, SWRD sensed an opportunity and formed the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), a broad four-party coalition. Sirimavo once again campaigned for him in Attanagalla, Balangoda, and Ratnapura. The MEP won a landslide victory and SWRD became the Prime Minister.

Sirimavo was at “Tintagel” when her husband was shot by a bhikkhu on September 25, 1959. She accompanied her husband to hospital where he succumbed to his wounds the following day. At the Parliamentary Elections of March 1960, the United National Party won a four-seat majority over the SLFP.

In May 1960, Sirimavo took over the leadership of the SLFP. Dudley Senanayake, the serving Prime Minister, was defeated in a vote of confidence and an election was called for July 1960. Sirmavo toured the country and made emotional speeches, pledging to continue her late husband’s left-wing reforms.

World’s first woman Premier

On July 21, 1960, following a landslide victory for the SLFP, Sirimavo was sworn in as the first woman Prime Minister in the world. As she was not an elected member of Parliament at the time, but leader of the party holding the majority in Parliament, the Constitution required her to become a member of Parliament within three months.

On August 5, 1960, Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke appointed Sirimavo to the Senate of Ceylon and she continued as the Prime Minister. The Time magazine had reported in 1961 that during her first ten months, she had a record of more trouble than accomplishment.

Sirimavo established a corporation with public-private shareholders, taking control of seven newspapers. She nationalised banking, foreign trade, and insurance, as well as the petroleum industry. In taking over the Bank of Ceylon and establishing branches of the newly created People’s Bank, she aimed to provide services to communities.

In December 1960, she nationalised all the parochial schools that were receiving State funding. In January 1961, Sirimavo implemented a law-making Sinhala the official language, replacing English. Beginning in 1961, trade unions began a series of strikes that immobilised the transport system, motivating her to nationalise the transport board.

In an attempt to balance East-West interests and maintain neutrality, she strengthened the country’s relationship with China, while eliminating ties with Israel. She worked to maintain good relationships with both India and Russia, while keeping ties to British interests through the export of tea and supporting links with the World Bank. She condemned South Africa’s apartheid policy, and appointed ambassadors who sought relationships with other African Nations.

In 1961, she attended both the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in London and the Conference on Non-Aligned Nations in Belgrade. She was a key player in reducing tensions between India and China after the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Ceylon in 1962 with his daughter Indira and met with Prime Minister Sirimavo and her three children.

In November and December of 1962, she called conferences in Colombo with delegates from Burma, Cambodia, Ceylon, Ghana and the United Arab Republic to discuss the Sino-Indian dispute. In January 1963, she was rewarded when Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister,made a motion in the Indian Parliament.

The industrial projects such as Ceylon Steel Corporation in Oruwela, Ceylon Tyre Corporation in Kelaniya and Ceylon Sugar Corporation in Kantalai were started by her. Lack of support for austerity measures, specifically the inability to import adequate rice caused problems. The Cabinet Ministers were reassigned in an attempt to stem the drift toward Soviet trade partnerships, which had gained ground after the creation of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation.

In 1964, Sirimavo abolished the independent Ceylon Civil Service and replaced it with the Ceylon Administrative Service. In February 1964, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited Ceylon with offers of aid, gifts of rice and textiles, and discussions to extend trade.

Sirimavo hosted Presidents Tito of Yugoslavia and President Nasser of Egypt in March 1964, but continued domestic unrest caused her to suspend parliamentary sessions until July. In the interim, she entered into a coalition with the United Left Front and was able to shore up her majority, by a margin of three seats.

In September 1964, Bandaranaike led a delegation to India to discuss the repatriation of the 975,000 stateless Tamils residing in Ceylon. Along with Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, she ironed out the terms of the Srimavo-Shastri Pact, a landmark agreement for the foreign policy of both nations. In October 1964, Bandaranaike attended and co-sponsored the Non-Aligned Conference held in Cairo.

In December 1964, she lost a vote of confidence by one vote and dissolved Parliament. In the 1965 Parliamentary Elections, she won Attanagalla and with her party gaining 41 seats, she became the Leader of the Opposition, the first woman ever to hold the post. By 1969, Sirimavo was actively campaigning to return to power.

Second term as Prime Minister

Sirimavo was appointed the Prime Minister in 1970 when her United Front coalition won the 1970 Parliamentary Elections with a large majority. She introduced policies requiring that permanent secretaries in the Government ministries have expertise in their division. All Government employees were allowed to join Workers Councils. She established People’s Committees as well.

With the declining of revenue from coconut, rubber and tea exports, she attempted to centralise the economy and implement price controls. Also, she tried to balance the flow of foreign assistance from both capitalist and communist partners.

In September 1970, Sirimavo attended the third Non-Aligned Conference in Lusaka, Zambia. She also travelled to Paris and London to discuss international trade. She said representatives of ‘The Asia Foundation’ and the Peace Corps to leave the country. She announced that her Government would not recognise Israel, until its problems with neighbours are peacefully resolved.

She officially granted recognition to East Germany, North Korea, North Vietnam, and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. In December, the Business Undertaking Acquisition Act was passed, allowing the State to nationalise any business with more than 100 employees.

Despite her efforts to address the country’s economic problems, unemployment and inflation remained unchecked. After just 16 months in power, her Government was almost toppled by the 1971 Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Insurrection.

In early April, attacks on police stations evidenced a well-planned insurgency. Calling on its allies for assistance, the Soviet Union, Britain, the United Arab Republic, the United States, Yugoslavia, East and West Germany, Norway, Poland, India and Pakistan responded. The Government was saved largely because of Sirimavo’s neutral foreign policy.

On May 1, Sirimavo suspended Government offensives and offered an amnesty, which resulted in thousands of surrenders. The following month a second amnesty was offered. She established a National Committee of Reconstruction to re-establish civil authority and provide a strategic plan for dealing with the insurgents. She expelled North Korean diplomats, as she suspected they had formented the radical discontent.

In May 1972, Ceylon was replaced by the Republic of Sri Lanka after a new Constitution was ratified. Though the country remained within the Commonwealth of Nations, under its terms, the Senate, was officially abolished and the new unicameral National State Assembly was created, combining the powers of the executive, judicial and legislative branches in one authority.

The new Constitution also extended Sirimavo’s term by two years, resetting the mandated five-year term of the Prime Minister from 1972 to 1977. The 1973 oil crisis had a traumatic effect on the country’s economy. Still dependent on foreign assistance, goods and monetary aid from Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Hungary, and the World Bank, she eased the austerity programs that limited importation of consumer goods.

In recognition of International Women’s Year in 1975, Bandaranaike created an agency to focus on women’s issues, which would later become the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs. Sirimavo was feted at the UN World Conference on Women hosted in Mexico City, attending as the only woman Prime Minister elected in her own right.

Bandaranaike stepped into the one-year term of chair at the 5th Conference of the Non-Aligned Nations in 1976, hosting the meeting in Colombo. In the 1977 Parliamentary Elections, the United Front was defeated, winning only six seats. Sirimavo retained her parliamentary seat Attanagalla.

In 1980, a Special Presidential Commission investigated allegations against Sirimavo as Prime Minister. On October 16, 1980 she was stripped of her civic rights for seven years. She maintained her role as party leader. In January 1986, her civic rights were restored. Sirimavo unsuccessfully contested the 1988 Presidential Election.

On February 6, 1989, while campaigning for the SLFP, she survived a bomb attack. She was successfully re-elected to Parliament from the Gampaha District. In the final election results, the SLFP gained 67 seats and Sirimavo became the Leader of the Opposition for a second term.

Sirimavo’s daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga, who had been living in self-imposed exile in London since 1988, when her husband Vijaya Kumaratunga had been assassinated, returned to Sri Lanka and re-joined the SLFP in 1991. Sirimavo who was increasingly impaired by arthritis, suffered a stroke.

Kumaratunga led the formation of a new coalition, the People’s Alliance (PA), to contest the 1993 Western Provincial Elections in May. The alliance won and Kumaratunga was appointed as the Chief Minister. Subsequently, Kumaratunga led the People’s Alliance campaign for the 1994 Parliamentary Elections, as her mother was recovering from surgery.

The Alliance won a decisive victory, and Sirimavo said that Kumaratunga would become Prime Minister. By this time Kumaratunga had also succeeded her as the leader of the SLFP. Sirimavo with complications from diabetes was confined to a wheelchair. Having been re-elected to Parliament, she was appointed to her daughter’s Cabinet as a Minister without Portfolio.

Third term as Prime Minister

Becoming the first female President of Sri Lanka, Kumaratunga appointed her mother, Sirimavo as the Prime Minister in 1994. Though the office of Prime Minister had become mainly a ceremonial post, Sirimavo’s influence in the SLFP remained strong.

Madam Sirimavo died of a heart attack on October 10, 2000 at Kadawatha, as she was heading to Colombo after casting her vote in the Parliamentary Elections. Sri Lanka declared two days of national mourning, and her funeral took place at Horagolla where she was interred in the mausoleum, ‘Bandaranaike Samadhi.’